|A cottontail rabbit.
A cottontail rabbit has taken up residence under our screen porch. Every evening we see it nibbling the weeds that grow in the gardens around our house. It doesn’t seem to mind us watching – even when my one-year-old shrieks with delight.
We’ve seen an increase in rabbits in our yard this year – in fact, an increase in wildlife in general. A family of turkeys trots across the lawn every day around dusk, the mother along with ten babies. A hawk perches on the roof of our barn or in the trees above our house, and we have regular evening visits from a family of deer. Our back yard connects to a wide corridor of undeveloped land, close to the highway, so I imagine these creatures are roaming free in their natural habitat – what’s left of it. But nothing comes as close to the house – and its inhabitants – than the rabbit.
Massachusetts is home to two species of cottontail rabbits, the New England (Sylvilagus transitionalis) and the Eastern (Sylvilagus floridanus) . The two species look very much the same to the untrained eye, although the former is generally a little bit smaller in size. But they prefer different habitat. According to the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Wildlife, the New England Cottontail likes denser areas – mountains, shrub-dominated wetlands, brush-filled woods, as well as regenerating clearcuts, and densely-forested power line corridors and highway medians. The Eastern Cottontail, on the other hand, prefers more open areas — pastures, fields, farms, stone walls, marshes, and suburban backyards. Their home range can be anywhere from half an acre to more than 40, depending on the terrain. Since our resident rabbit is hanging out so close to the house, I’m guessing it’s the Eastern variety, even if the woods out back are brushy and fairly dense.
Cottontail rabbits are active at dawn and dusk. They tend to be solitary, and very territorial. They are herbivores, eating tender green vegetation – including grasses, clover, and garden veggies –when it is available, and bark, twigs and buds in the colder months.
The Eastern Cottontail rabbit has long ears and, true to its name, a short, fluffy tail. It is reddish brown or brownish gray in color, with lighter color on its belly and the underside of its tail. It has big eyes, weighs 2-4 lbs., and can range from 12 to 20 inches in length.
Eastern Cottontails breed in the spring and summer. During mating season, the male and female perform a sort of dance, wherein the male chases the female until she stops to box at him with her front paws. Then, they each take a turn jumping straight up into the air. Now that’s something I’d like to see!
Eastern Cottontails nest in shallow depressions in the ground which they line with grasses, other plants, and fur plucked from the female’s belly. After about a month, the female produces a litter of 1-9 young, who leave the nest at 3-5 weeks of age. The female may mate again very soon, and she can have up to four litters per year.
Cottontail rabbits can move quickly, leaping distances from 10-15 feet at a time, and running up to 15 miles per hour. They stand on their hind feet to watch for predators, which include fox, bobcat, hawks, owls, snakes, and even pet dogs and cats. When chased, they sometimes dart from side to side to break the scent trail. Just as much of a threat is the hunter — the Eastern Cottontail is the most widely hunted game animal in the eastern United States.
Our resident Eastern Cottontail doesn’t have to worry about being hunted – unless it strays beyond the bounds of our neighborhood. I don’t even mind that it has eaten a hole in our compost bin, where it seems to take much of its nourishment. We will enjoy watching it come out for its evening meal, and hope the hawk that perches on the barn can continue to look the other way.
By Kezia Bacon-Bernstein, correspondent
Kezia Bacon-Bernstein’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit www.nsrwa.org.